It’s hard to imagine anyone less Jewish — or more goyish — than James Bond: He of the shaken-not-stirred-martinis; he who serially beds the blond, buxom “Bond girls”; he who drives the latest, fastest, gadget-equipped sports car. He may be the hero, but he’s no mensch. The United Kingdom newspaper the Daily Mirror recently called the fictional secret agent (and sometimes it’s easy to forget that Bond is an invented character, not a real person) “a British icon as enduring as the Royal Family and the Rolling Stones.”
In fact, Bond was the literary creation of novelist Ian Fleming, a notorious right-winger who, like many Englishmen of his generation, wore his anti-Semitism on his sleeve. Fleming’s books, unlike the much more popular films they spawned, occasionally trade in vulgar and hateful Jewish stereotypes, and whenever a character does seem Jewish, he is always a villain.
Yet from its beginning a half-century ago, from the 1962 “Dr. No” up through the most recent entry in the series, “Skyfall” — the 23rd Bond film, which opens in the United States on November 9 — Jews have played an essentially creative role in the James Bond film series. “Skyfall” features a Jewish director (Sam Mendes), and an actor, Daniel Craig, who, while not Jewish himself, is well known for his portrayal of heroic Jews (including roles in “Defiance” and “Munich”) and who is married to the prominent British Jewish actress Rachel Weisz. (Besides which, my mother always said it was a dead giveaway that a celebrity is Jewish when he sports two first names, like Laurence Harvey or Jack Benny.)
Even on a grander scale, a Jewish-inspired theme plays out in this gem business of a movie series, whose titles include “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” Fleming based the title character of “Goldfinger,” who is Bond’s nemesis, on Ernö Goldfinger, the real-life Hungarian-born Modernist architect and leftist who was a neighbor of Fleming’s in Hampstead. Fleming invested his Goldfinger, renamed Auric (meaning “gold” in Latin), with an obsession with power. The movie “Goldfinger” elides the character’s Jewish origins, which in Fleming’s original are the subject of some consideration. Ironically, German actor Gert Fröbe, who portrayed Goldfinger in the film, had been a member of the Nazi Party during World War II.
Hollywood being Hollywood, a place more friendly and conducive to Jewish participation than Fleming’s universe — fictional or otherwise — there have been plenty of Jewish contributions, or contributions by people who happen to be Jewish, to the James Bond corpus:
Ken Adam, aka Sir Kenneth Adam, OBE, was the production designer on all the classic 1960s and ’70s Bond films, from “Dr. No” in 1962 to “Moonraker” in 1979. Adam was born in Berlin in 1921; his father and uncles were successful high-fashion clothiers, prominent in the city since the late 19th century. Adam and his family left for England in 1934, after Nazi harassment forced them out of business. Adam was one of only two German nationals who flew planes for the wartime Royal Air Force; had the Germans captured him, he could have been executed as a traitor rather than kept as a prisoner of war.
Irvin Kershner, whose directorial credits include “The Empire Strikes Back” and the TV movie “Raid on Entebbe” (for which he received an Emmy nomination), and who played the role of Zebedee, the father of the apostles James and John, in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” helmed the 1983 Bond film, “Never Say Never Again,” which marked Sean Connery’s return to the title role and made Kershner the only person to direct both a “Star Wars” film and a James Bond film, two of Hollywood’s most successful franchises. (The Bond films are second only to the Harry Potter films in total revenue.)
Harry Saltzman, born Herschel Saltzman in Quebec, was the proverbial rebel who at age 15 ran away from home and joined the circus. During World War II he served with the Canadian army in France, where he met his future wife, Jacqui, a Romanian immigrant, and began his career as a talent scout. He wound up working as a producer for theater and then film in England in the mid-1950s, and afterreading Fleming’s “Goldfinger” in 1961, he optioned the film rights to the Bond stories.
Saltzman’s friend, screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, introduced him to the American-born Albert R. Broccoli, who also wanted to make James Bond films. Together, Saltzman and Broccoli formed Eon Productions, the company that to this day — still owned by Broccoli’s heirs (Broccoli bought out Saltzman in 1975) — produces the official Bond movies. Mankowitz, a native of London’s East End, which was the heart of the Jewish community at the time, was an incredibly prolific and successful writer whose outlets included musical theater, novels and screenplays, one of which is the first draft of the first Bond film for Eon, “Dr. No.” Mankowitz allegedly asked that his name be removed from the credits, fearing that the film would be a flop and damage his reputation. Ironically, the release of security files in 2010 showed that Mankowitz was suspected by the MI5, the British security service, of being a Soviet spy.
The 1967 film version of “Casino Royale,” based on Fleming’s very first Bond novel, is one of the only ones not produced by Eon, although Mankowitz had a hand in writing the screenplay, as did fellow Jewish writers Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller and Billy Wilder (along with Terry Southern, John Huston and Val Guest). The spoof featured actors Woody Allen and Peter Sellers.
New York-born screenwriter Richard Maibaum, who already worked for Broccoli before the latter began producing the Bond series, wrote most of the classic Bond films. Maibaum began his writing career in New York as a playwright, and his work included the anti-lynching play “The Tree,” and “Birthright” — an anti-Nazi drama. Maibaum contributed to all but three of the Bond films, beginning with “Dr. No” and running through “License To Kill,” in 1989. More than anyone, perhaps even Fleming, Maibaum can be said to have created and sustained the mythical icon of Bond. Mensch or not, Bond has proved to be an enduring figure over the past 50 years, one whose image has been shaped, prodded and refined — in significant measure by Jews — far beyond anything Fleming might have imagined or, indeed, may have wanted.
Seth Rogovoy, an award-winning cultural critic, is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, 2009).
This story "On Her Majesty’s Semitic Service" was written by Seth Rogovoy.